After the Ig Nobels, a look behind the Ig Nobels
There were no signs of Nobel laureates, but winners of the Ig Nobel awards for the year — presented Thursday at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre — gathered Saturday morning at Toscanini’s Ice Cream in Central Square to eat, drink and talk around Gus Rancatore’s Big Table, mainly recounting tales of research and their new-found fame. Rancatore, an inveterate booster of the awards for dubious scientific achievements, has hosted the breakfast for years and attends the award ceremonies religiously. (Irreligiously.)
An even more faithful attendee, of course, is organizer Marc Abrahams, who found time to talk between making the rounds at Toscanini’s and departing for the Ig Informal Lectures scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where it all started.
The MIT Museum, which holds about 350 people, was volunteered for the first awards ceremony in 1991. Abrahams said he was startled when tickets went on sale after a brief burst of advertising on the then much-smaller Internet and all “were snapped up instantly.” On the day of the event, even more people were clamoring to get in. Abrahams invited four Nobel laureates he knew, and they came; he invited winners of the first Ig Nobels, and they came.
“It came together surprisingly easily,” Abrahams said.
The Ig Nobels continued to grow, compelling moves to MIT’s Kresge Hall and to the Sanders in 1995; the Sanders fills up easily for the Ig Nobels even with 1,200 seats. The awards are world-famous — although Abrahams finds them oddly neglected locally, noting “We haven’t even been able to get a sponsor” — and getting more so. Winners have started to get immense amounts of attention and “we have started to see campaigns to win Ig Nobels. Companies lobby us, universities lobby us, on occasion governments lobby us. They want the publicity,” Abrahams said. (No campaign has been successful, although they also do not invalidate a nomination. Ten to 20 percent of each year’s 7,000 nominations are scientists nominating themselves, and very few of those have won either.)
It’s no surprise, then, that winners this year flew across the country and from four continents, on their own dime, to take part. “Science is very serious. It’s one of the most frustrating fields on Earth. Nine out of 10 times, the results are going to be very frustrating,” Abrahams said. “But most scientists goof around a lot.”
He is sensitive to those who may not find the Ig Nobels funny, though.
“When we choose [a winner], we get in touch very quietly and give them a chance to turn down the honor. If they turn it down, that’s it. People don’t come here unless they want to,” Abrahams said.